SC Clarifies What Must Go in the Record on Appeal

Parties who appeal a summary-judgment order do not need to include in the Record on Appeal the transcript of the trial-court hearing on the motion.

In Woodson v. DLI Properties, 406 S.C. 517, 753 S.E.2d 428 (2014), a couple sued over their attempt to buy some property. The trial court granted the defendants summary judgment in a written order which did little more than recite that the court reviewed the evidence and was granting judgment.

The couple appealed and included in the Record on Appeal the supporting documents and legal arguments before the trial court when the court ruled. But they did not include a transcript of the hearing on the motion.

HeadacheThe South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed because the couple failed to include the transcript in the Record. It reasoned that it could not tell from the order that summary judgment was proper and affirmed because the missing transcript might have revealed the basis for the ruling. So the failure to include the transcript in the Record was fatal, the Court held.

The Supreme Court disagreed, holding:

  • trial courts do not need to make findings of fact or conclusions of law in their summary-judgment orders
  • trial courts base summary-judgment orders on the evidence presented and not statements made during the hearing
  • a trial judge’s statements during a hearing are irrelevant as the later, written order is the final judgment.

The Court then concluded that the trial court’s reasoning in the summary-judgment order was clear enough to allow meaningful appellate review, and affirmed on the merits.

The Supreme Court’s first point, that summary-judgment orders need not include findings of fact or conclusions of law, is straight out of Rule 52 (a), SCRCP.  Yet the common practice, and what the Supreme Court described as the better practice, is for trial courts to articulate reasons when granting summary judgment.

This avoids a “Summary judgment is granted” order.

A bare-bones order, however, may not be so bad for those appealing a summary judgment.  On appeal, the appellate court applies the same Rule 56 standard that applies in the trial court. Woodson, citing Quail Hill, LLC v. Cnty. of Richland, 387 S.C. 223, 234, 692 S.E.2d 499, 505 (2010).  A one-sentence order forces the appellate court to decide for itself whether there are genuine issues of material fact and whether the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Losing parties should thus rejoice at the one-sentence order because there is nothing there to hurt you. Some appellate courts treat the order being appealed as a supplemental brief for the respondents.  A conclusory, one-sentence brief does little harm.

Anyone disagree or have other thoughts on Woodson? Please leave a reply.

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